Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

How to Paint or Resurface Wall Paneling

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Painted wall paneling

A light paint color can breathe new life into old wall paneling.

Dark wood wall paneling sure had its heyday, and it surely is over! Wall paneling can be tricky to update, and whether you can resurface it by filling in the grooves depends on if your paneling is solid wood or plywood.

Here are some tips and suggestions for how to update wall paneling in your home.

Solid Wood Paneling

Unfinished solid wood, beadboard paneling.

Solid wood paneling.

If your paneling is solid wood made from individual, tongue-and-groove or V-groove boards, don’t try filling in the grooves, since it will tend to crack and fall out as the wood shrinks and expands with the seasons.

To give solid wood paneling a new look, either lightly sand and paint the wood or remove the boards and replace with drywall. If the paneling is knotty pine, be sure to use a stain blocking, oil or shellac based primer to help prevent the resin in the wood from bleeding through the paint.

Plywood Paneling

If the paneling is the thin plywood variety that was popular in the 1970s, you have a few more options:

Sanding a glossy finish on plywood paneling

The glossy finish on plywood paneling has to be sanded before finishing.

Painting Plywood Paneling

You’d be surprised how far a nice, light paint color can go in updating the look of wall paneling. If your paneling flexes or gives when you push on it, painting is probably your only solution, since filling the grooves will tend to pop loose over time.

To paint plywood paneling:

    Can of paint primer with brush

    Don't forget the primer!

  • Step #1. Sand Paneling: Most plywood paneling has a slick finish that prevents paint from adhering well. So before you start, sand the entire surface with medium (120 grit) sandpaper to remove the gloss.
  • Step #2: Prime Paneling: Next, apply a high quality primer and allow it to dry. If there are any problems with the primer not sticking, resand and correct it now, because it’ll only get worse!
  • Step #3: Paint Paneling: Finally, apply at least two coats of latex wall paint. The finished wall will still have grooves, but they will be much less noticeable, and the overall look will be dramatically improved.

Resurfacing Plywood Paneling

If the plywood paneling is rigid and doesn’t flex when you push on it, you may be able to fill in the grooves with drywall joint compound before painting to give a smooth surface.

Follow these steps to resurface plywood paneling:

  • Step #1: Sand Paneling: Start by sanding the surface with medium (120 grit) sandpaper to remove the glossy finish.
  • Step #2: Prime Paneling: Next, apply an even coat of primer to give a uniform surface for the filler to stick to.
  • Container of joint compound

    Joint compound.

  • Step #3: Fill Grooves: After the primer dries, fill in the grooves in the paneling with standard drywall joint compound. Use a putty knife to apply a thin layer of joint compound in the cracks. Don’t use spackling compound, which isn’t durable enough, or caulk, which won’t sand smooth.
  • Step #4: Additional Coats: Allow the joint compound to dry and shrink overnight before applying each additional coat. Continue applying the compound in thin layers until the cracks are completely filled.
  • Step #5: Sand Paneling: Once the joint compound has dried, sand the surface smooth with medium grit sandpaper.
  • Step #6: Prime Paneling: Apply a coat of latex wall primer to keep the joint compound from showing through.
  • Step #7: Paint Paneling: At long last you’re ready to roll two coats of high quality, latex wall paint on the paneling!

Go Light with the Putty Knife!

Resist the urge to slather on the joint compound to try to save time. Not only will it crack and look awful, but the wet putty will soak into your paneling, causing it to permanently swell and warp.

Removing or Covering Over Paneling

If you’ve come to the conclusion that all that filling and sanding is a lot of work, you may want to skip redoing the paneling in favor of a permanent fix.

If the moldings and trim are installed over the paneling, as is usually the case, start by removing them. Use a hammer and flat pry bar to take off any quarter round, baseboards, crown molding, chair rail, or door and window casings. Mark where each molding came from on the back, and save them for reuse later.

    Finishing drywall

    Finishing drywall.

  • Option #1: Rehab Old Wall: If the wall has plaster or drywall behind the paneling and the paneling wasn’t glued to the wall surface, you may be able to remove the paneling and rehab the old wall surface using drywall joint compound. Before filling nail holes in drywall with joint compound, dent the surface around the nail hole slightly using a hammer with a rounded head or a special drywall hammer, so the joint compound will adhere and sand smooth. Removing the paneling will cause some of the moldings to be a bit short, so you’ll need to either add to the existing moldings or replace them.
  • Option #2: Cover Over Paneling: Alternatively, you can install a layer of 1/4” drywall directly over the paneling, making sure to nail or screw the drywall into the wall studs. Next, tape and fill the seams and nail or screw heads as you would any drywall job. This may sound difficult, but compared to filling and sanding several hundred paneling grooves, a few drywall seams don’t seem so labor intensive! Covering the paneling will cause the wall to be thicker, so some of the moldings will to need to be trimmed, and the casings around doors and windows may need shimming to cover any gaps.

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3 Comments on “How to Paint or Resurface Wall Paneling”

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  1. trista Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 6:09 am

    Could u buy the paint and primer mixed? Would it work the same?

  2. Trena Says:
    November 8th, 2013 at 9:46 am

    I’m moving into an older home and the walls have wallpaper over paneling. You can see the wallpaper peeling up at the edges all over the house and it really looks nasty. I would like to fix it some how but not quite sure where to start. The wallpaper has a raised up design on it also. I paint for a living but this looks like a huge undertaking. Please help!

  3. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    November 18th, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Hi Trina,
    Your question was answered in the second hour of our November 16th Today’s Homeowner radio show. You can listen to the show on our website at http://www.todayshomeowner.com/radio/2013/11/16/todays-homeowner-radio-show-for-november-16-2013/

    Thank you for your interest!

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